Cultures Film & TV Theatre

From Hip-Hop Hit to Feline Fiasco: The Highs and Lows of Movie Musicals

Illustration by Ben Beechener

Earlier this week, I went to see the highly anticipated film adaptation of Lin Manuel Miranda’s In The Heights. Mixed in with all the hype, I’d heard some criticism from superfans of the stage show, as there are a few major changes to the characters and the storyline. Now, I have a confession to make: I have never seen the stage show, and to me, the film was a vibrant, uplifting look at the hopes and dreams of New York’s Latino community. All this debate got me thinking about the process of adapting stage musicals for the big screen more generally. Why it is that some attempts hit absolutely the right note, whilst others simply fall flat? I’ve collated my musings into two lists of my top five hits and misses of the movie musical world.

Let’s start with the misses.

5) Beauty and the Beast (2017)

Okay, I know this is slightly cheeky seeing as Beauty and the Beast was technically a film before it was a stage show. I have no problem with the original 1991 Disney animation, and that’s almost why I disliked the 2017 remake so much. Beyond the fact that this is a live action version, with a far greater reliance on autotune, there is very little that differentiates the two films. There are a handful of new songs, none of which are particularly memorable, and there is very little chemistry between the Beast and Belle. Despite some beautiful cinematography, this live action remake lacks the warmth and charm of both the original animation and the stage production. It does rather beg the question, “if it ain’t broke, why fix it?”

4) Jesus Christ Superstar (1973)

Jesus Christ Superstar is one of my all-time favourite musicals, and the stage show is nothing short of spectacular. With minimal staging, there is always a sense of timelessness to the story, and the unadulterated power of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music shines through. Norman Jewison’s 1973 screen version is filmed primarily at the ruined city of Avdat, Israel, which seems to suggest an attempt towards an accurate Biblical history. Yet the overstated glam rock costumes combined with the music style, beautiful though they are, are unmistakably 70s. This bizarre contrast feels anachronistic, bordering on the comical – I am somehow reminded of Monty Python’s Life of Brian – and it is difficult to take the work seriously. Not to mention the fact that Ted Neeley’s Jesus is so lacking in charisma that I doubt he’d be able to lead a poodle around a show ring, let alone an entire religion.

3) Evita (1996)

Another Lloyd Webber adaptation, I’m afraid. Evita is a fictionalised account of the life and death of Eva Péron, First Lady of Argentina from 1946-52. Alan Parker’s 1996 film stars Madonna in the title role, and, while she certainly has the “star quality” that is so central to the character, she lacks emotional depth. Whereas when I saw Evita at the theatre, I sobbed so loudly that my mum pretended not to know me, the film left me cold. I also take issue with the fact that Another Suitcase in Another Hall, the ballad performed in the musical by Juan Péron’s previous mistress after Evita has thrown her out onto the street, is sung by Madonna in the film. This changes the story completely, and Evita’s cruelty is conveniently skimmed over, creating a much more decidedly sympathetic heroine than I believe Lloyd Webber and Rice intended.

2) Les Misérables (2012)

Like many die-hard fans of the stage show, I cannot stand this adaptation. I admire what director Tom Hooper was trying to do by having the whole film sung live on camera rather than pre-recorded (which is a world first for a screen musical), but for this to have worked, he really ought to have cast professional musical theatre actors for more than just cameos as students and prostitutes. As it is, we have Amanda Seyfried offering an insipid, warbling Cosette; Hugh Jackman opting for an odd style of speak-singing as the hero Valjean; and Russell Crowe as the police officer Javert was simply flat. With so many greats having played these roles in the West End and on Broadway, this film pales in comparison.

1) Cats (2019)

My biggest flop hardly needs introduction. Why Tom Hooper didn’t opt either for highly stylised costumes and makeup like the stage show, or for entirely CGI cats with the actors providing voiceover, I do not know. The actors, wearing skin-tight bodysuits and covered in digitally produced fur which is then blended with their actual skin, become a series of frankly nightmarish figures. The visual effects are not even particularly well done: the film had to be re-released after viewers noticed a scene in which Judi Dench’s human hand could be seen beneath her fur. Even on stage, I find that Cats has no discernible plot, and the music is far from my favourite. The 2019 screen adaptation therefore only goes to show that just because we can turn something into an 110 minute feature film, does not mean that we should.

Now for my five favourite big screen adaptations:

5) Oliver! (1968)

Carol Reed’s adaptation of Lionel Bart’s musical has something for everyone. Amid all the smog and seediness of Dickensian London, we are provided with wonderfully bawdy humour, some real tear-jerker performances (Shani Wallis’s rendition of As Long as He Needs Me is a standout), and chorus numbers that are just immense in terms of energy and scale. It’s a family film, but this doesn’t mean that any of the fear factor is toned down either: Oliver Reed as Bill Sikes still makes me shudder to this day. Despite cutting a few underrated numbers from the stage show, the film version of Oliver! remains a real treat which has withstood the test of time.

4) Dreamgirls (2006)

Bill Condon’s screen version of Dreamgirls offers all the sparkle of the original 1981 Broadway production and then some: from its glitzy costumes to its star-studded cast, this adaptation dazzles. Yet behind all the lavish extravagance of The Dreams’ rise to fame, the film also alludes to historical events that are given comparatively little spotlight in the stage show, including Detroit’s 12th Street Riot and speeches by Martin Luther King Jr. This context is needed, in my opinion, to reinforce to viewers just how influential the music of groups like The Dreams was in terms of racial integration in the music industry. And then there’s Jennifer Hudson, making her film debut, whose rendition of And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going goes to show that you don’t need to be physically within the theatre to deliver an absolute showstopper.

3) The Sound of Music (1965)

It’s easy to write off The Sound of Music as not having much substance beyond singing nuns and lonely goatherds – but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Of course, there are moments that are hopelessly cheesy (I appreciate that Julie Andrews telling the seven children to fight their fears by singing about apple strudel is a little twee), but there are some really hard-hitting political undercurrents too. Captain Von Trapp’s refusal to collaborate with the Nazis results in the family having to stage a daring escape over the border, for example. Despite having seen the film countless times, I still forget to breathe whenever I watch the family hiding in the convent from Nazi soldiers. Finally, the well-known aerial shots of the lush Austrian Alps make for absolutely stunning visuals, and make me want to Climb Every Mountain myself.

2) Mamma Mia (2008)

Mamma Mia is another adaptation where the setting is a large part of what makes the film so beautiful. The breath-taking panoramas of golden sand and sparkling sea (filmed on the Greek islands of Skopelos and Skiathos) give the film the ultimate holiday feel, far more than the simple blue washes used in the stage show could hope to achieve. All the most successful elements of the stage show – the costumes, the comedy, the energy of the whole endeavour – are translated beautifully onto the screen, most probably because both were directed by Phyllida Lloyd. The entire cast lend their characters a loveable charm, and the whole film has this wonderful ability to laugh at itself. This means that even if things aren’t perfect (cough, Pierce Brosnan’s singing, cough), it does not detract from the overall feel-good factor of the film.

1) Hamilton (2020)

Is it cheating to choose a film of the stage show for the number one spot? Possibly, but I really don’t think Hamilton would work in any other format. Talking to Variety Magazine, Lin Manuel Miranda, the musical’s own ‘founding father’, said “I don’t know what a cinematic version of Hamilton looks like. If I had, I’d have written it as a movie”. One of the show’s main themes is the idea of legacy, and who will tell our story after we’re dead. Therefore, being able to see the audience of Broadway’s Richard Rogers Theatre as they are told this story of “the founding father without a father” adds an extra layer to the narrative. Even beyond this slightly academic reading, the absolute powerhouse of a cast (ironically, Miranda is probably the weakest), Thomas Kail’s masterful direction, and the pure originality of the concept deserve to be immortalised on the screen, exactly as they are.

It is easy to assume that no screen adaptation could ever match up to the magic of live theatre, but there are a handful that make an admirable attempt, and possibly even surpass the original in some cases. Ultimately though, even the disasters play an important role in making theatre accessible: be it due to costly ticket prices, or the pandemic pressing pause indefinitely on live entertainment, it is not always possible to make it to the West End. Ensuring that everyone can experience the world’s greatest musicals, even if they are not brilliantly executed on screen, is always something worth applauding.

Francesca loves all things arts-related: over the course of her degree, she has been part of numerous student productions and choirs, and has held positions of responsibility including Queens arts rep and musical director for acapella group In the Pink. She has also written reviews for Oxford Opening Night, and poetry for Hypaethral Magazine and How 2 Be Bad.